Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Puffing and Chewing

Tobacco was unknown in ancient India but people did inhale smoke for medical and recreational purposes. According to the Susruta Cikista, an ancient treatise on medicine, inhaling smoke is good as a purgative, a cure for tiredness, depression, throat and nose problems and is also beneficial for pregnant women. Certain herbs were burned and the smoke sniffed in through a small metal tube (dhumanetti). The Buddha subscribed to this kind of smoke therapy and allowed monks and nuns to have smoking tubes (Vin.I,204), although some people apparently considered them to be a luxury (Ja.IV,363). Cigarettes (dhumavatti) smoked for enjoyment were made by grinding cardamom, saffron, sandalwood and aloe wood into a fine paste and moulding it over a reed so that it was about 15 centimetres long and with the thickness of a thumb. When the paste was dry, the reed was removed and the resulting cigarette was smeared with clarified butter or sandalwood oil before being ignited. These cigarettes were probably far less harmful than the modern ones. Another ancient medical work, the Caraka Samhit a, recommends sitting in an upright but comfortable posture while smoking, taking three puffs at a time and inhaling through both the mouth and nostrils but exhaling only through nostrils.
While smoking has a very negative effect on the body, it has little or no effect on consciousness and thus, from the Buddhist perspective, has no moral significance. A person can be kind, generous and honest and yet smoke like a chimney. Thus, although smoking is inadvisable from the point of view of physical health it is not contrary to the fifth Precept.
Smoking is very common in all Buddhists lands although in 2005 Bhutan was the first country in the world to ban it. In Burma, Thailand and Cambodia monks commonly smoke and in fact often start even before their teens. Go to a dana in any of these countries and the ‘requisites’ often include packets of cigarettes and in Burma, cigars. Statistics released in 2001 in Thailand showed that smoking-related diseases were the single biggest cause of death amongst monks. It is considered unacceptable in Sri Lanka for monks to smoke but smoking in private is common. Strangely enough, while Sri Lankan lay people would be scandalized by a monk smoking they consider it perfectly alright to offer them chewing tobacco.
Chewing betel, betel nut and betel leaf (Pali tambula) are not mentioned anywhere in the Tipitaka. They are not mentioned by Panini, in the early Upanisads, the Mahabharata or the Ramayana either. The only explanation for this silence is that betel chewing had not been introduced (from South India or South-east Asia?) at the time these books were composed. Soon after the nut was introduced into India its use became widespread within a very short time. It even took on an erotic aspect. A young woman’s lips stained red with betel juice was a turn-on for Indian men. Vatsyayana suggests spitting the betel juice you’re mouth into your lovers mouth as a part of love play. God! How tastes change! Today, chewing betel is common throughout South and South-east Asia, southern China and Taiwan. Monks in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos often chew it and I saw an old Taiwanese nun with betel-stained teeth, although I believe most monastics there shun it today. While betel is as big a health risk as tobacco, it is, if anything, even more aesthetically unpleasing. Watching a Sri Lankan monk interrupting his sermon at regular intervals to spit betel juice into a spittoon is quite a sight. As a novice one of my jobs was to empty and wash the senior monks’ spittoons. As I had to do this at the end of the day it turned out to have some value. I felt so revolted after having done it that it killed any pangs of hunger I had and this helped me get used to not eating at night. I can say from personal experience that a mixture of spittle, phlegm, betel juice, tobacco juice and cigarette buts warmed in the sun for half a day is the world’s most effective appetite suppressant. Perhaps I should patent it. I might make a fortune.
While thoughtful and aware people everywhere are increasingly moving away from tobacco and betel chewing, high percentages of monks just continue as before. Abbots don’t seem particularly worried that their smoking sets a bad example for young novices or the lay community. The general ignorance amongst them and their indifference to health issues, indeed most issues, means that smoking and betel chewing will probably remain a part of monastic culture for the foreseeable future.


yamizi said...


So does the fifth precept literally refer to alcoholism?

so substance-abuse was a latter add-on to the precept? If so, what is the rationale behind it?

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Yamizi,
Taking alcohol or any mind-altering drugs is against the Precepts. I do not say or imply that the fifth Precept was an 'add-o.'As my blog post makes clear (at least I thought I had made it clear until I read your comment), smoking and chewing betel would not come under the fifth Precept because they have almost no effect on the mind. However, smoking and betel chewing show a disregard for health and disrespect towards the body and thus are inadvisable.

yamizi said...

Dear Bhante,

How about mind-altering computer games that some teenagers have grown overly-obsessed with?

Justin Choo said...


I think in this day and age, monks should set good examples for not smoking. I, for one is not attracted to monks who smoke.

(During one of your talks, you mentioned that Chief Rev smoked. I never saw him smoked and that came as a shock!)

Gui Do said...

"Literary sources, however, point to an Indian origin. A Pali text of 504 BC mentions betel."